Kamilah Willingham was attending Harvard Law in 2011 when she says she was sexually assaulted. According to Willingham, she and a friend were either barely conscious or completely unconscious when they were fondled without their consent and her friend’s clothes were removed.
Willingham told her story in The Hunting Ground, a documentary released in November of last year that features several women describing how their universities handled their reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence.
Since then, Willingham has been subject to increased harassment — and the doubt has come not simply from random campus rape deniers who have reached out to her through social media, but also from Harvard Law professors and journalists with significant platforms.
Nineteen Harvard Law professors wrote a letter expressing their doubt about Willingham’s story, as well as about the broader issue of sexual assault on college campuses, which has inspired increased activism among college students over the past several years.
“This purported documentary provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student,” the letter read.
Willingham said that although she wasn’t surprised that faculty at Harvard would “shoot the messenger” and reject the idea that campus rape allegations are not being handled correctly, she didn’t expect they would choose to criticize her in particular.
“It felt like a personal attack,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s really hurtful that I know some of them and that they’re willing to slam me so publicly.”
The backlash against victims who speak out
The professors’ decision to publicly criticize not only a specific woman, but also an entire movement seeking to prevent sexual assault and ensure fair disciplinary hearings on college campuses, lends credibility to broader criticisms of The Hunting Ground. The documentary intended to communicate that campus rape is a widespread problem, that many colleges have not developed standards for how to respond to claims of campus rape, and that students were often discouraged from reporting their rapes. But it’s not a message everyone is comfortable hearing.
Despite extensive research showing that a significant number of college students are raped on campus, some people — including political figures, journalists, and college administrators — continue to imply it’s not actually a high-priority issue or that claims are already being handled correctly.
The most prominent example of this backlash came from Emily Yoffe, who criticized Willingham’s account in Slate, saying it was simply a “spontaneous, drunken encounter,” and Stuart Taylor of The National Review. Willingham said she received the worst harassment shortly after Yoffe wrote about her.
“Some of the criticism is from people who really don’t understand the issue and who really don’t understand the experience of survivors,” Amy Ziering, the producer of The Hunting Ground, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Ziering and her colleagues interviewed over 100 sexual assault survivors over the course of making the film. She noted that a lot of the sexual assault survivors who were interviewed for The Hunting Ground didn’t agree to appear on camera because they “didn’t want to go through the trauma of publicly claiming this happened to them” and face the subsequent backlash.
Although some reporting on sexual assault survivors who speak on camera depicts them as fame-hungry — including lines such as, “The alleged victims most eager to generate publicity for their stories may be the those most likely to say what activists or journalists in search of a good story want to hear” — it’s hard to understand why Willingham would want the level of negative attention she has received. She said she saw “hordes of really degrading messages” in her inbox every time a new piece was published questioning the veracity of her account of events.
Perpetuating the ‘perfect victim’ ideal
The professors purport the documentary made the claim that her assailant used force. They also thought it was important to point out that Willingham and her friend were intoxicated and that the accused was not to blame for their drinking.
“No evidence whatsoever was introduced at trial that he was the one responsible for the inebriated state of the women who are portrayed in the film as his victims,” they wrote.
The writers of the letter are also betraying two common assumptions about what make a rape or sexual assault “legitimate.” They imply that the intoxicated state of the victims is related to how responsible they are for their own sexual assault, and they also imply that force is necessary to sexually assault a victim.
Because the victims were either passed out or barely cognizant of what was happening at the time of their assaults, there is a question of why force would be required to sexually assault the women. Even if the victims are fully awake and aware of what is happening, there are plenty of disincentives for victims to do so, such as fear of violence, which is one reason why the idea of enthusiastic consent has been championed among advocates against sexual assault. For example, one of the many survivors interviewed for the documentary, Andrea Pino, explained how scared she was that she would receive more violence had she fought back, saying, “… you just stay there and hope you don’t die … I was hoping I had more than just 20 years to live.”
This mindset reflects the questions Willingham recalls being asked during the disciplinary hearing. She said that she remembered being asked whether or not she fought back — a question that she considered ridiculous given her incapacitated state. She said she also remembered being asked about her friendship with the accused and whether or not her friendship with him gave him the “wrong message.” Survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence often know their attacker, yet, it is common knowledge that previous social association with the accused, whether it was simply a platonic relationship or previous sexual involvement, is often used against the survivor to suggest the victim deserved the sexual assault.
This phenomenon recently played out in the case of then student at Columbia University Emma Sulkowicz after she protested the way her university handled campus sexual assault by carrying a mattress around on campus, which served as her senior arts thesis. Critics of Sulkowicz who doubt her telling of events, mentioned messages Sulkowicz sent to the man she accused of rape after she said the rape took place, but Sulkowicz said she reached out to him afterwards because after being close friends with her attacker, she wanted to “talk with him to try to understand why he would hit me, strangle me and anally penetrate me without my consent,” as she told Mic.
But the complexity of the situation — of being attacked by someone you once trusted and perhaps loved — is often lost in the conversation on campus rape, which requires survivors to be “perfect victims,” who behave in the way our culture expects them to behave, a mold that few if any survivors of sexual assault and rape will fit.
A false sense of balance
Many stories about campus sexual assault hone in on the potential for false rape reports that could ruin the lives of the accused. They tend to use the term “the other side” to describe people who say they’ve been falsely accused of a crime.
Although the research varies, the evidence suggests that false rape reports do not happen very often. It has been widely reported that between 2 to 8 percent of rape reports are false, and the majority of those accused of sexual assault don’t spend any time in prison. Between 8 percent and 37 percent of rape cases lead to prosecution, research funded by the Department of Justice shows. That doesn’t mean false reporting doesn’t matter — but it does mean that portraying survivors as just as likely to lie about sexual assault as they are to tell to the truth is inaccurate and harmful.
“This falsely accused thing drives me nuts,” Kirby Dick, who wrote and directed The Hunting Ground, told ThinkProgress. “The criminal justice system resoundingly resides in favor of the perpetrator.”
“There’s a real parallel between climate change deniers and rape deniers in terms of how they operate,” Dick added. “And there is going to be a similar parallel in terms of the impact on this culture… It’s taken 20 years for us to crawl out of that hole. We can’t just assume there are two sides and those two sides are equally weighted.”
The people who deny that campus rape is a problem typically say that the studies trying to discern the rate of sexual assault among college students are misleading. There has been a lot of criticism of a 2007 study that found one in five women have been sexually assaulted in college, which has been widely disseminated by advocacy groups and the White House.
But more recent data has reinforced the 2007 claim. Rutgers University researchers found that one in five women received unwanted sexual contact on campus, and researchers from the University of Michigan found very similar results last May.
There’s definitely a need for more data on how many people are sexually assaulted on campus — as well who the victims tend to be, what kinds of sexual violence they’re experiencing, more specifics about who the perpetrators tend to be, and at which types of campuses rape and sexual assault happens more frequently — the American Association of University Women told ThinkProgress. But a lack of more refined data on some of these issues is exactly why we need more studies on the subject. It’s not evidence that sexual assault and rape on campuses does not exist.
In some cases, the existing data is misleading. AAUW recently did an analysis of federal data required by the Clery Act and found that nine out of 10 campuses reported zero incidents of sexual assault in 2014 — a statistic that Lisa M. Maatz, vice president of government relations at AAUW, said “defies reality and common sense.” Zero rape reports doesn’t mean rape never happens; instead, it likely means that students are uncomfortable reporting incidents of sexual assault at the school, Maatz noted.
As Ziering and Kirby point out, many women only felt obligated to report their rapes and sexual assaults after discovering someone else experienced violence at the hands of the same perpetrator. Many rape survivors are aware that police won’t believe them, won’t spend time on the case, or both, and that they will be doubted by their own communities, if not outright shunned by them.
Campuses still don’t know how to handle sexual assault
Regardless of the challenges to collecting data about sexual assault and rape on campus, the documentary — as well as recent U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigations into how 117 institutions of higher education handle these cases — makes it clear that the treatment of these cases is uneven across campuses. Standards for how to handle them are often nonexistent, even at the some of the oldest campuses in the United States.
In December of 2014, an OCR investigation into Harvard University found that the law school’s sexual harassment policies and procedures “failed to comply with Title IX’s requirements for prompt and equitable response to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
In response to an inquiry from ThinkProgress, a Harvard spokesperson said that the school “has been at the forefront of campus efforts to more effectively prevent sexual assault and other forms of sexual harassment, and to respond when it does occur” since then, pointing to Harvard’s efforts to create a new sexual assault policy and direct more resources to prevention methods.
“Sexual assault is a problem everywhere, in any context. But in schools and in closed communities, they have a responsibility to address this epidemic that affects their communities,” Willingham said. “And when they place their reputation or financial gain or even egos over the safety and integrity of their communities, it’s unacceptable. Turning their backs on survivors of sexual assault and acting as if those interests are above the safety of students on campus… They have to see the cost of that decision is immeasurable.”
There’s a long way to go. When asked whether colleges usually have a process for ensuring university staff involved in judging student misconduct don’t have conflicts of interest — let’s say an athletic director is involved in judging whether or not it’s likely an athlete raped a freshman — Kirby Dick said many of the colleges they researched for the documentary did not have any real standards like these in place.
“Schools should have been doing this decades ago. They should have been developing best practices a long time ago,” Dick said. “But the problem is schools are so far behind that many of them haven’t figured out a way to address this yet.”